Bless the Child?
Warning: here follows a rant that some will find offensive, but which is medically-related, so I'm doing it. Turn back now, if you have religious sensitivities.
The Seattle Times has been running a generally heartbreaking series about a young girl with terminal cancer. The latest installment has put me over the edge. I can understand -- even support -- the decision, after giving everything over to conventional treatment and seeing it fail, to stop the drugs and turn in another direction. I'd not, however, have chosen prayer, at least not in the way it's being done. What I see in the recent article is, pure and simple, child abuse.
I've mentioned religion before, relating how, as a surgeon, I've seen faith, for some people, make facing deadly illness easier. (I've also indicated that I've seen it accomplish just the opposite.) Patients' faith clearly can make it easier for me, when giving bad news and when caring for the dying. But this. These prayer circles, this continuing belief that healing will happen if enough people pray -- and, implicitly, if the girl herself is godly enough -- is setting the poor child up for a death bathed in self-recrimination. Evidently, it's already happening. (For those that didn't read the article, its title is a quote from the girl: "You Know I've Been Down... Forgive Me.")
There is nothing -- NOTHING -- worse than the death of a child. I've attended to dying children and their families; and, as some have noticed in the sidebar of this blog, I've lived with it in my family. I have nothing but sympathy and sorrow for the family and for this little girl. But I think if I knew them well enough, I'd be saying this to them, off camera and away from the press: pray if you need to. Pray for comfort, for understanding, for strength. But get off this miracle healing thing. You're ruining what life your child has left. Keep up hope? Sure, as long as it's reasonable. But give her an out; give her a way to accept what's happening to her, if such a thing is possible, without blaming herself.
God help me, I can't stop. I should just shut up at this point, and let it be about the care of the poor child. But I can't. I must also say this: there's something perverse to the point of revulsion in the idea of a god that will heal the girl if enough people pray for her. What sort of god is that? To believe that, you must believe he deliberately made her ill, is putting her through enormous pain and suffering, with the express plan to make it all better only if enough people tell him how great he is; and to keep it up unto her death if they don't. If that sort of god is out there, we're in big, big, BIG trouble. If people survive an illness because of prayer, does that mean that god has rejected those that didn't pray? If you pray for cure and don't get it, and if you believe that praying can lead to cure, then mustn't you accept that God heard your prayers and said no? If so, are you going to hell? But if you say either outcome is God's will, then what's the value of the prayer in the first place? In this case, it seems, it's only to make the girl feel guilty and unworthy. How sad. Since the whole idea is so internally inconsistent, give the poor kid a break.
Does this family's god need reminders; does he have DADD? Or is he waiting for them to hit a magic number of people praying? A certain quantum of prayer-units that must be achieved? Does he give credit for getting close, maybe knock off a little pain when they hit 80%, or is it all or nothing? In praying to him -- and if, as the article says, people around the child see God at work in all his glory -- shouldn't they be thanking him for their daughter's misery rather than asking for a change of plans? Shouldn't they be delighted with the whole thing? If He's perfect, how can you add to that by praying? Or expect a change? I simply don't get it.
And what of children who have no one to pray for them? If prayer works, what's going on with those kids? Does this prayer-tabulating yet perfect god not care about them? Or isn't he paying attention? Has he deliberately set them up in a situation where they're screwed?
If I were asked (and I surely won't be), here's what I'd say: If your child is sick like this one, and is old enough to comprehend what's going on, think it over carefully. If you need to pray, don't just pray for cure and lay it at her feet. It's virtually certain to be a losing proposition. Help her, hold her, care for her, do what you can to make her happy and to help her come to grips. But don't put the whole burden for survival on her. It's a horrible thing to do. She's asking God's forgiveness? Baloney. He should be asking for hers.